“You don’t put up a billboard; you just do the job.”
Published by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
By JUSTIN VELLUCCI August 8, 2022
Jonathan Schachter, who served the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh non-concurrently as a volunteer, president and executive director and was months away from retiring, died unexpectedly on July 25.
“He was gregarious, he was bold,” said one of Jonathan’s younger brothers, David Schachter. “He marched to his own beat, even from early childhood. He was never a follower. He was always a leader. He commandeered the troops he organized.”
Born in 1954 in Philadelphia, Schachter was the eldest of three sons of Jeanne and Jacob Schachter, a pair of teachers — one in math, one in high school languages — who raised them in an Orthodox household. Schachter is survived by his father; his mother died in 2010.
Schachter came to western Pennsylvania to attend the University of Pittsburgh in 1972 and, after graduating, decided to stay, his brother recalled.
Before joining the JCBA ranks around 15 years ago, Schachter held a variety of jobs. He worked in a tuxedo rental store and in pest control and sold cars. He also sold cookbooks under the name Lion House Distribution — his Hebrew name, “Aryeh,” translates to “lion” — out of the basement of his home in Forest Hills. He was active at the Jewish Community Center.
A few years ago, Schachter took on the critical task of performing taharah, or the religious cleansing of a body before burial, for some of the victims of the Oct. 27, 2018, synagogue shooting. It rattled him, but he seldom spoke of it, his brother said.
“He said to me, ‘You can’t imagine the amount of damage a bullet can do to the human body’ … but somebody has to do this,” David Schachter said. “You don’t put up a billboard; you just do the job.”
That was a common reflection among family and friends. Lauren Schachter, the only child of Jonathan and the late Andrea Schachter, said she saw her father take leading roles in services and education at Congregation Beth Shalom — but almost always in the shadows of others.
“He did what he had to do, and he got it done, whether people knew about it or not,” said Lauren Schachter, who grew up in Forest Hills and now lives in Akron, Ohio.
“His motor was always running,” David Schachter said. “He couldn’t sit still, even as a child.”
Schachter also helped form and lead the New Community Chevra Kadisha, his family said.
Schachter drew extensive praise from the spiritual leader of the Conservative shul where he was affiliated and in whose cemetery he is now buried.
“Jonathan was somebody who was truly committed to community,” Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Seth Adelson said. “He was a person who was dependable and Jewishly knowledgeable and willing to give his time for people in need.”
Schachter helped lead — and, later, administer — the JCBA through key transformations, said Barry Rudel, the JCBA’s executive director. And he did it all with grace and civility.
“As the administrator in these last two-and-a-half years, there was nothing Jonathan wouldn’t or couldn’t do,” Rudel said. “He really made a difference, [and] he was an extremely versatile person. Whatever we do as a cemetery association in the future will be on the shoulders of Jonathan Schachter.”
Schachter had cared for Pittsburgh’s “abandoned” cemeteries since 2007.
“I take great satisfaction in what I do, maintaining something that needs to be taken care of, out of respect for those buried there, and as part of our Jewish tradition,” Schachter told the Chronicle for an article in September 2015.
“He was just one of those Pittsburgh types — he was a very unassuming person,” said Tammy Hepps, a Squirrel Hill resident and JCBA board member. “He was just one of those genuinely good people who plug themselves in to do some good. He wasn’t looking for glory. He was just one of those quiet, good people.”
Hepps credits Schachter — who, she said, was “always focused on the work” — with “single-handedly bringing stability” to the JCBA as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up a committee to steer it toward greater things.
“He just managed a lot of types of information … and held it all together,” Hepps said.
Harvey Wolsh, JCBA’s president, said Schachter was “extremely diligent in his work” and credited him with JCBA’s recent successes, which include bringing several new cemeteries under its jurisdiction.
“I don’t think we would have survived without him,” Wolsh said. “He just had a knack of being there at the right time when things were necessary. We’re going to have a hard time filling his position.”
Schachter’s funeral took place at Beth Shalom Cemetery on July 28. In addition to his father, daughter and brother David, Schacter is survived by his brother Avram, and many aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.